By Uju (Lucy) Nwolum
Telecommunication organisations operating in Nigeria find themselves in the middle of widespread debates about social responsibility. There are four licensed mobile phone operators and all are multinational companies that are expected to comply with international standards.
In practice, the thriving telecommunication industry has been poorly regulated and many masts have been erected indiscriminately around the country, close to homes and in public places. There are understandable concerns about possible radiation impacts from the masts. Also, these masts are often run using power generators, producing constant noise and CO2 emissions.
Besides the impact of the masts, the World Health Organization (WHO) has raised fears of possible cancer risks from over-use of cellular phones . Another study on using coated mobile recharge cards in Nigeria[ii] points to health risks associated with exposure to the silver coating that covers the PIN number on telephone cards.
As the most populous country in Africa, and with over 90 million mobile phone users in Nigeria, there are also environmental impacts from the industry. These range from the materials used in the manufacture of the phones to the trees used in generating paper-based contracts and bills.
There are also positive impacts. A study on the impact of mobile phones in Africa[iii] suggests the benefits of mobile phones include improved flow of information, improved infrastructure, improved market efficiencies by promoting investment, and contributing to empowerment. The mobile operators make profits and pay taxes to the government; also, entrepreneurs make use of mobile communication to overcome difficulties in information and services. The expanding networks provide employment and commercial opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Despite these benefits, there are still problems of access in Nigeria, where the tariffs are among the highest in the world. The telecoms companies are highly profitable and therefore, despite the challenging environment in which they operate, they have an obligation to adopt social responsibility practices.
A review of the sustainability performance of Nigeria’s telecommunications companies reveals that only two out of the four have social responsibility plans disclosed on their corporate websites. While mobile operators in the developed world have a strong reputation for job creation, fair working conditions and promotion of social enterprise, their Nigerian counterparts have yet to follow their example.
Many questions remain. Will Nigerian telecoms companies carry on turning a blind eye to the impact of their operations? Will their silence on sustainability and responsibility have an impact on their corporate image? And how long will it be before social media will be used by activists to judge how socially responsible Nigeria’s telecommunications companies are?